Bears

Stanley Cup Final presents an unlikely matchup

764508.jpg

Stanley Cup Final presents an unlikely matchup

From Comcast SportsNet
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- Roughly two years ago, the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils were the finalists in the free-agent market battle for Ilya Kovalchuk. The Devils won the right to keep the high-scoring Russian with a bid of 102 million. Wednesday night, the teams will start fighting for a much bigger prize, the Stanley Cup. In this contest, skill, heart and desire will decide the outcome. Nothing else. And it doesn't matter that the Devils and Kings aren't the two teams most experts expected to be left standing after three rounds of the playoffs. "You hear it every year, but it doesn't get old: Once you make it in, you have a chance to get here," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "I think that's one thing that the prognosticators don't consider. I always put it this way, when the playoffs start, the clocks should be reset. Because everyone's starting over, and all 16 teams have a shot to win it all. "I think both teams would agree with that this year." Led by Kovalchuk and a 40-year-old Martin Brodeur, the Devils are just the second No. 6 seed to reach the finals. The 2004 Calgary Flames, coached by Sutter, were the other. Riding the goaltending of Jonathan Quick, the Kings overcame even bigger obstacles. They are only the second No. 8 seed to make it since the conference-based NHL playoff format was introduced in 1993-94. The Edmonton Oilers were the first in 2006. "It's all about winning here, and eliminating distractions and doing what it takes to be successful," said Brodeur, who led the Devils to Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003. "That's worked for us this year, and really my entire career. For me, to be a part of that is great. To come to the rink every day during my career, knowing we had a chance to win every night is something special. "I've had that my whole career here, and that's been a great ride." While this isn't a glamour series that boasts the likes of a Sidney Crosby, a Steven Stamkos or even a Henrik Lundqvist, it has elements that should help the NHL, and prove entertaining on the ice. To start, this is an East-West series featuring two of the nation's biggest media markets: Los Angeles and the New York metropolitan area. The Kings and Devils also present great story lines. Los Angeles, which heavily courted Kovalchuk in free agency, is making only its second appearance in the Cup finals, having lost in 1993 to Montreal. The Kings are back after a midseason shake-up that saw Sutter replace Terry Murray just before Christmas and a late trade that added skilled scorer Jeff Carter to the lineup. Still, they didn't clinch a playoff berth until the final week of the season. The Kings have been virtually unstoppable since then. They have posted a 12-2 record in the playoffs and knocked off the three top seeds in the Western Conference -- Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix. They have never trailed in a series, winning the first three games in each round. "Everybody's just clicking," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. "People are used to playing with their linemates now. The lines have been the same from the last part of the season. D pairings are the same. It's just getting used to them. Everyone is playing with confidence. Once you start clicking like that, pucks start going in the net for you." The Devils' story is just as good. They missed the playoffs last season despite retaining Kovalchuk with a 102 million contract that the league said violated its letter of the law. Few expected them to recover this quickly, especially with Brodeur seemingly on his last legs after a sub-par season, and captain Zach Parise returning from a major knee injury. When top center Travis Zajac blew out an Achilles tendon before training camp, the chances of Devils making the finals seemed slim. Guess again. New Jersey won its final six games in the regular season, rallied from 3-2 deficit in the opening round of the playoffs with two overtime wins against Florida, and then eliminated the Flyers and Rangers, their two biggest rivals, in five and six games, respectively. "Last year was tough," said Kovalchuk, who said there was never a doubt in his mind that he would stay in New Jersey. "But we made sure it paid off. We have a great coaching staff, great players here, great group of guys, very close to each other. I think that makes a big difference." The other thing that should be great is the goaltending. The 26-year-old Quick leads playoff netminders in goals-against average (1.54) and save percentage (.946). He has eight road wins in as many starts, posting a 1.55 goals-against average and .948 save percentage in those games. Brodeur is a four-time Vezina Trophy winner. He has played in 24 career Stanley Cup finals games, posting a 15-9 record with a 1.91 goals-against, losing only a series to Colorado in seven games in 2001. The Montreal native is set to become the fifth goaltender in NHL history and first since Jacques Plante in 1970 to appear in the Stanley Cup finals after his 40th birthday: "Well, everyone knows what he's meant to the league and this team, and where he stands in history," Quick said of the NHL's winningest goaltender. "For me, it's not about me against him. It's about the Kings and the Devils." The Devils and Kings are very similar in their approaches. Both want to establish the forecheck, create pressure and have it lead to offense. The Kings, who posted a 25-13-11 regular-season record after Sutter took over, are definitely a little bigger than the Rangers, and they certainly have more depth. Devils defenseman Peter Harrold played five seasons with the Kings before signing with New Jersey this year. He spent the majority of this season at Albany of the AHL, before being inserted into the Devils' postseason rotation. He said both organizations stress team first. "Everything is about the collective, not the individuals," said Harrold, who says this series will be good for hockey. "It's two really big stages. "That's what you want to grow the game."

Packers at Bears odds: Betting line has Chicago as nearly touchdown favorite

12-12_trubisky_usat.jpg
USA TODAY

Packers at Bears odds: Betting line has Chicago as nearly touchdown favorite

Las Vegas has come around on the Bears since the last time they played the Green Bay Packers.

Back in Week 1, the betting line opened with the Packers favored by a full nine points. Even after the Khalil Mack trade, the line spread only moved to 7.5.

Even in a heartbreaking loss, Chicago covered the spread, and oddsmakers have really come around on Matt Nagy and company.

Coming off of a huge victory over the Los Angeles Rams, the Bears are favored by six points over the Packers for Week 15, according to Vegas Insider.

The spread opened at Chicago minus five and has trended in their direction ever since.

The point total for the game has gone down since opening at 46.5, with the over/under now at 45 points.

The total has hit the over in seven of the last 10 Bears games, but last week’s low-scoring game against the Rams could be cause for concern.

Strange things tend to happen in Bears-Packers matchups, but Las Vegas is much more confident in Chicago the second time around.

Bulls trip to Mexico a much-needed diversion

vucevic-1211.jpg
USA TODAY

Bulls trip to Mexico a much-needed diversion

After a drama-filled first eight days under the leadership of new head coach Jim Boylen, maybe a trip to Mexico City is exactly what's needed for the 6-22 Bulls.

With all the reports of player unrest, a potential practice boycott and the formation of a players' leadership group, maybe a team dinner in a warm climate is the perfect recipe for reducing tension.

Of course, both the Bulls and Magic will have to adjust to playing at the mile-high altitude in Mexico City Thursday night. The Bulls' players are hoping to get their legs back after last week's training camp-style practices. They played well in the first half against Sacramento on Monday, running out to a 56-45 lead. But the Bulls looked stuck in the mud the rest of the way, getting outscored 63-33 in the 2nd half on the way to a 108-89 loss, their third in four games under Boylen's direction.

The Magic have also struggled lately after getting off to a good start that currently has them in the eighth playoff position in the East. Orlando has dropped seven of its last 10 games, the latest a 101-76 haymaker at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks on Monday.

The Magic are led by free agent to be Nikola Vucevic, who's averaging 20.6 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Aaron Gordon got the big contract he was looking for as a restricted free agent last summer and he's having a decent season, but not what the front office was hoping for after paying him close to 80 million dollars over the next 4 years.

Former Bulls guard D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant are running the point for Orlando. Augustin has started all 27 games so far and he's been decent, averaging 10.1 points and 5.1 assists, while Grant has chipped in 4 points and 3 assists in just under 20 minutes of action off the bench.

Orlando is also getting solid production from wing players Evan Fournier and Terrance Ross, but much like the Bulls, their future is about the development of recent top 10 picks Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba. Both have been inconsistent so far, and both need to add strength to be able to deal with all the physical contact in the paint. Unless one or both develop into a top tier post player, the Magic's grand rebuilding plan will fall apart pretty quickly.

Still, Orlando is 12-15 at this point which is about where the Bulls figured to be if they hadn't suffered so many injuries at the start of the season. It will be interesting to see which direction each of these teams go now that the Bulls have everyone back except for Denzel Valentine. Of course, trades could change the composition of both rosters with players like Vucevic, Fournier, Ross, Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez all of potential interest to contending teams.

Here's what it will take for the Bulls to get into the win column on Thursday.

1. Sustained effort. As my former studio partner, the late, great Norm Van Lier used to say, "I need 48 minutes of intensity." The Bulls gave Jim Boylen 24 minutes on Monday, with Zach LaVine throwing down a monstrous hammer dunk to punctuate his 12 point, 5-6 shooting first half effort. Whether it was tired legs from all the extra practice time or poor execution, the Bulls were done in by a turnover-filled second half. They'll need to find a way to avoid the nightmare quarters that have cost them a chance at several wins this season.

2. Limit second-chance points. Orlando has plenty of size with Vucevic, Gordon and Isaac in the starting lineup and Bamba coming off the bench. The Bulls' big men have to focus on boxing out and not allowing the Magic to get multiple shot opportunities. Robin Lopez played well in the first half on Monday, then didn't see the floor after intermission. His size will be important in this game.

3. More from Dunn and Portis. Both players showed encouraging signs in their first game since late October, combining for 14 points and 8 rebounds in the opening half against Sacramento. Best of all, they showed no hesitation in going all out following their rehabs from knee sprains. Dunn should return to the starting lineup soon where his ability to penetrate will lead to easier shots for Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. Portis can provide instant offense off the bench, something that's been sorely lacking for most of the season.

Don't forget you can watch Thursday's game on NBC Sports Chicago and MyTeams by NBC Sports app. Sticking with the Mexico City theme, we'll be doing the preame show live on location from Harbee Liquor and Tavern in the Pilsen neighborhood, 1345 W. 18th St. If you're going to be in the area, come on out and say hello to Kendall Gill, Will Perdue, Horace Grant and myself. Pregame coverage begins at 8 p.m., with the play-by-play call from Neil Funk and Stacey King at 8:30, followed by Bulls Postgame Live and Bulls Outsiders.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.